Divorced parents' relationship impacted by communication technology

A new study suggests technology can help or sabotage communication between divorced parents.
Cait Campbell / Graphic Designer

As new forms of communication develop, the ability to exchange information without interacting continues to grow. Though this might decrease the amount of face-to-face communication, researchers at MU have discovered it can help improve cooperation between divorced parents.

“Parents with a positive co-parental relationship used technology to convey information, share co-parenting duties and generally make co-parenting easier,” said Richard Feistman, a graduate student who worked on the project. “Communication technology was a valuable tool for these divorced couples.”

Professor Lawrence Ganong, who was in charge of co-parenting research, said technology could either complicate or simplify one's life.

“If divorced parents had pretty good relationships as co-parents, then they tended to use communication technology in positive ways, but if they were mad or fighting, then they used the technology to control the other parent’s access to information,” Ganong said.

This information could include important dates such as recitals or soccer games, Ganong said. In some cases, parents said they would call when they knew the other parent was busy so the other parent could not answer the phone.

“Phone calls had the potential to disintegrate into arguments about ongoing disagreements and rehashing of past issues," according to an article published in Family Relations: a scientific journal that focuses on family studies. "Phone calls, unless recorded, leave no record of what was said, so co-parents can deny having been told things about the children such as their schedules.”

The study was conducted by interviewing 49 parents who were divorced and had at least one child younger than 18 at the time of divorce. The parents varied among single and remarried parents, sole and joint custody and the quality of the relationship.

One participant in the study said sometimes she talks to her child without talking to her former spouse.

“He’ll dial the phone and then hand it to her, and then I answer the phone,” the anonymous parent said. “When I’m done talking with her, I’ll just hang up so he doesn’t talk to me afterwards.”

The kids are aware of the communication issues, Ganong said.

“Some parents would use this as an excuse to give the child a cellphone so that the child could contact the other parent directly,” he said.

Despite these steps, the negative use of communication technology rarely works and makes co-parenting harder for those with a negative relationship, Feistman said.

Parents who already had a positive relationship with their co-parent are often those who use technology most efficiently, Ganong said. Programs like Google Calendar were used to communicate without actual interaction.

“If you don't want to talk, you can post an event (on Google Calendar) without communicating," Ganong said. "Oddly enough, the parents that did that got along great anyway. We had some parents who called each other four or five times a day.”

The paper suggests those in family law and family therapy could use these findings to improve communication between parents to maintain healthy relationships.

Ganong and his co-authors plan to continue this research with other studies.

“We are talking about doing a parallel study about how kids interact with their parents using technology,” Ganong said.

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